Whenever a director (or in this case, a directing team) has a breakout debut, it can become difficult to make a second film that garners the same kind of acclaim and attention. When your first movie is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, it is virtually impossible for your follow-up to live up to everyone’s expectations. After Little Miss Sunshine (2006), husband and wife directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris decided that rather than direct a sub-par film they would wait until they found the perfect script.
Enter Zoe Kazan and her first produced screenplay, Ruby Sparks (2012). It tells the story of Calvin (Paul Dano) and his inability to write a follow-up novel to his critically acclaimed debut written ten years ago, while he was still a teenager. At the encouragement of his therapist, Dr. Rosenthal (Elliott Gould), he begins writing about dreams he had involving his own encounters with a mysterious woman that he has now named Ruby. As he writes he becomes enthralled with her, but is unprepared for the morning when he wakes up to find Ruby (Zoe Kazan) living in his home, as his girlfriend.
At first he thinks he is hallucinating, but then he realizes other people can see her as well. He embraces the splendor of this miraculous transformation that has occurred and becomes thrilled with the prospect of having the “perfect” (or at least perfectly written) woman in his life.
Through conversations with his brother, Harry (Chris Messina), Calvin decides to stop writing about Ruby because she is perfect the way she is, and he doesn’t want to change anything about her. As their relationship continues and matures, Calvin becomes irritated with minor things about Ruby and her personality. After a weekend at the home of his eccentric mother (Annette Bening) and her boyfriend (Antonio Banderas), Ruby decides that she wants some space in the relationship, and Calvin has to start writing about Ruby again in order to keep her from leaving him. Of course things don’t go the exact way Calvin anticipates, and he begins a journey of self-discovery that leads him to understand he is more disappointed in himself than he ever knew.
Ruby Sparks is a very funny and highly entertaining film. It is filled with exactly the kind of humorous situations that you would expect from this kind of story. Everyone has probably dreamed that they could control those around them, and Ruby Sparks illustrates the dangers that come with such an unusual power. What I didn’t expect was the seriousness of the story. It ends up being more of a drama with comedic elements, as opposed to the other way around. As the comedy begins to fade away after about 40 minutes, a more thought provoking and intimate story emerges.
Calvin is a flawed individual. He is insecure and has spent too many years in isolation. He has absolutely no ability to interact with anyone, and therefore he has built his own personal universe that only includes his therapist and his extremely fantastic and supportive brother. We feel sorry for Calvin, but not too sorry because it is easy to see how his life is a disaster because of his own faults.
This is the perfect follow-up to Little Miss Sunshine for Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. They have a unique ability to take these quirky, interesting characters and make them not only entertaining, but also find some way to give us an understanding and insight into who they really are, and how they feel. They have an obvious talent for directing an ensemble cast. Every character, even the small ones, leave lasting impressions on us because of the way they are presented on the screen. Steve Coogan is particularly enjoyable as Calvin’s competitive writing colleague. His attitude and the delivery of his lines is perfect.
The music score for Ruby Sparks caught me off guard. The music was written by Nick Urata, lead singer of the band DeVotchKa. The score was beautiful, and it was more powerful than I was expecting from this kind of a film. It was the perfect fit with this story, and I found myself sitting through the ending credits just to hear more of the powerful melody.
Zoe Kazan gets my full respect and admiration for her writing and acting in the film. It is beautifully written and I look forward to seeing what else she has in store for us in the coming years. I know it’s a little early to start looking at these kinds of things, but Ruby Sparks is the most original story I have seen so far this year, and I hope it gets proper consideration in the upcoming award season.
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